Editor’s note: Bargaining Unit boost is a regular column in Education Forum featuring an OSSTF/FEESO Bargaining Unit and the job class(es) within that unit. OSSTF/FEESO, founded in 1919, has over 60,000 members across Ontario. They include public high school teachers, occasional teachers, educational assistants, continuing education teachers and instructors, early childhood educators, psychologists, secretaries, speech-language pathologists, social workers, plant support personnel, university support staff, and many others in education.
This Bargaining Unit boost focuses on District 21, Hamilton-Wentworth’s Professional Student Services Personnel (PSSP). I had the opportunity to meet with two members of this Bargaining Unit, Leigh Moore (D. 21 PSSP President) and Robin Jun (D. 21 PSSP Chief Negotiator/Grievance Officer), for an enlightening conversation about the members who make up this unique employee group.
Leigh has been a member of PSSP for 20 years. She is a psychoeducational consultant working with students K–12 and part of her role includes completing assessments in order to profile a student’s learning challenges by identifying their strengths and needs. Robin has been a member for 13 years and is a speech language pathologist working mainly with students K–3, but also servicing all grades.
When asked about a general overview of the jobs and roles within the PSSP Bargaining Unit, Leigh pointed out that her unit consists of six different job classes, who often work as multidisciplinary teams making important contributions to system-wide collaborations. With approximately 85 members, the six job classes include board certified behaviour analysts (BCBA), kinesiologists, occupational therapists, psychoeducational consultants, social workers, and speech language pathologists.
Leigh explained that members of the PSSP Bargaining Unit are involved in an intense level of engagement with individual students. Robin added that their expertise and experience allows these professionals to quickly and efficiently identify students in the system with the greatest needs. These members meet with students and their families to provide answers and solutions that dramatically change students’ pathways. Often they meet with students who have been struggling for years and after only a short time, diagnoses and identifications can be made that will help address and meet the student’s unique needs. It is like a “lightbulb” going on when they distinctly pinpoint exactly why the student has been struggling and set in motion the recommendations they can provide to help turn their lives around.
I asked both Leigh and Robin what part of their jobs is the most rewarding. For Robin, it is working with students who have communication difficulties and improving their lives by collaborating with their educators, families, and community professionals. They are able to lay the groundwork to provide the best outcomes for students. The teams are exceptional at working in the system for the benefits of the students. Leigh added it is rewarding to act as a conduit when forming relationships amongst the students, community partners, and case workers. Having a multidisciplinary team brings all the pieces together. It is a perfect example of the education team’s function in a student’s success and growth.
All members of OSSTF/FEESO have been affected by COVID-19 and this includes the ways in which these professionals are able to interact with students. However, unlike the majority of OSSTF/FEESO, most members in this Bargaining Unit belong to regulated health colleges. Essentially, they are health care workers working in education. Like with all of members of the Federation, the pandemic has changed the face of how we work and deliver our services. For the PSSP Bargaining Unit in D. 21, these challenges have also presented them with the opportunity to rethink their approaches to how they support students. They have had to consider the best ways to meet and assess students virtually and to develop new methods to keep students safe. Both Leigh and Robin give their members kudos for doing an amazing job of moving their services and skills to a virtual environment.
One of the benefits of delivering their services online is that these professionals now have a greater ability to meet with parents. The challenge of travelling between a variety of schools for parent meetings is gone, allowing more time and opportunity for parent input.
Apart from being valuable PSSP members, both Leigh and Robin contribute to their Bargaining Unit through their elected roles. Leigh spoke of the value of being part of OSSTF/FEESO. As president she feels supported; the meetings she attends and the communications she receives are beneficial in understanding the provincial lens that OSSTF/FEESO can provide. OSSTF/FEESO’s Provincial Office provides a macro view of education issues, including helping her best navigate labour law and member protection. This high-level support from OSSTF/FEESO helps Leigh feel secure in the messages and supports she provides to members.
Both Leigh and Robin enjoy being leaders of their Bargaining Unit. Leigh declared they do have a lot of fun on the executive. She feels honoured to represent such an incredible group of innovative people with a high degree of intellect. Much of their work involves thinking and working outside of the box, and it is very rewarding to watch the members blossom and grow.
Robin feels it is an honour and privilege to represent the members. She remarked that the members seem to enjoy the convenience of union meetings using Zoom, and they even had a better turnout for their annual general meeting than in the past.
In concluding the interview, I wanted to know something about the challenges/obstacles that are perhaps unique to the Bargaining Unit. In Leigh’s view she feels that as a smaller unit they may not always have as much power as larger ones. She commented that at times, the information from OSSTF/FEESO Provincial Office is more directly related to teacher issues than those of education workers. For example, the information on HEPA filters required during COVID-19 are for teaching and learning spaces but some of her members are working in significantly smaller spaces with different safety issues that need to be addressed. This is an example of why Leigh and Robin work to increase the voice of their members and to ensure their concerns and needs are addressed. This sentiment was echoed by Robin who then added that the biggest challenge from a Bargaining Unit stance is that they are a small education worker Bargaining Unit.
There is no disputing this is a unique and exciting Bargaining Unit to learn about, and they provide a specialized service to the development of students, their families, and community partners.